Whether you have kids or not, you’re likely aware that the parenting experience is often extraordinarily challenging. Young children are wonderfully headstrong, and their deep sense of fairness ensures that rules, when enforced (regardless of their rationality), carry the risk of tears, screaming, or both. The temptation to rationally explain to an upset four-year-old why he “can’t” hit his baby sister, or draw on the floor, or keep the dead bird he found in the backyard, is a trap many of us fall into – and it turns out not to work very well.
Kids often appear selfish, and rightly so: they haven’t had a chance to develop the higher order brain structure that adults have (the human brain generally takes until the age of 25 to fully develop). Consider this long developmental span (and the frustration that means for parents!), a trade-off for humans being so incredibly awesome; other species’ brains develop quite quickly by comparison. Childhood is the time when our brain does almost all of its developing.
From the time we are born, our “base” brain is the most active, controlling all of our necessary biological functions such as breathing, heart rate, thirst, temperature and so on. As we go through childhood, our “emotional,” brain develops: it controls emotion, facilitates the formation of our significant trusting relationships, assigns significance and memory to events, and determines much of our motivation, among other things. It isn’t until late childhood and early adulthood that we really begin to develop our executive brain, which allows us to reason and act appropriately and flexibly to the situations we encounter. Since the “emotional,” brain is associated with survival functions, negative emotions feel intensely painful and threatening to children, and trivial issues may seem like a matter of life and death. We can’t expect kids to simply “behave,” because we have told them something 1000 times – biologically, they are in survival mode.
Another fun fact – kids have very little conscious awareness of when they’re tired, or hungry, have extra energy that needs expanding, or have had enough attention (which is a real need for all of us). They also aren’t yet endowed with the ability to ask for what they need when they need it: rarely will you hear your child politely ask you for “a moment of your time at your earliest convenience.” We have the responsibility of ensuring their four “tanks,” are as full as possible: their hunger tank, their sleep tank, their exercise tank, and their connection tank. Kids’ appetites for attention are great, but not insatiable; often once they’ve had their fill of it, they will generally run quite nicely on their own.
A central task of what we call brain-based parenting is that of building resiliency – preparing our child’s brain for the stressful situations it will encounter as an adult; i.e., not getting what they want, or enduring conflict, sadness, and heartbreak. We can do that with consistency, love, and warmth, amongst other things. It’s important for us to remember during a meltdown that our child’s brain is overloaded; they couldn’t behave, even if they really wanted to. Young children, especially, are physically incapable of holding mixed feelings. The best thing we can do is provide the connection and safety they need to make it through. They may not be able to regulate alone, but we can help them to do so.
When your child has a meltdown, or you sense one coming, remind yourself that this is normal, which will be especially difficult in public if you’re feeling the acute shame of the scene you might be creating. Then, try some of these techniques:
- Take a moment to gather them with eye contact or touch and warmth when possible (Gordon Neufeld calls this “collecting”). By doing this, you activate the attachment response, inviting them into relationship and reinforcing your unwavering desire to understand them.
- Crouch to at or below their eye level. Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, authors of The Whole-Brain Child, show how getting down to a child’s level keeps threat-level low (imagine being confronted by someone four times your size!). By towering over a child, we risk activating and overloading their mid-brain circuitry beyond what it can handle.
- Listen to their screams or cries with as much empathy as you can muster. Pretend, if it helps, that the two of you are teaming up against the tantrum. Hold them if they need to be held, hear them if they need to be heard, no matter how inane their words might seem. Sometimes a warm and simple, “I can tell that you really, really want to keep that dead bird,” goes a long way towards making them feel heard.
- The calmer you are, the easier your child can use your calm to help regulate their own emotion. If the normally safe mom and dad are in panic or anger mode, it’s hard to blame kids for feeling overloaded. You can also teach your kids to breathe deeply when they are feeling overwhelmed, sad or stressed. Our bodies respond very well to deep breaths when stressed.
- Be curious about what is going on in yourself and in your child. This is a teaching moment for both of you. See if you are able to notice and observe your own impulsive reactions to your kids’ actions. These situations can be seen as a challenge to overcome, rather than a disaster to stop or avoid at any cost.
Suffering through tantrums alongside your child will help you understand and know their needs at a deeper, more intimate level, which will strengthen the bonds between the two of you and help you to see the signs earlier next time. I use the word suffer intentionally; these situations aren’t fun. We’re going to feel like we’ve screwed up time and time again, are going to acutely feel the disapproving glares of strangers at the supermarket, and may try the techniques in this post only to find they often don’t seem to work. Above all, try to find some grace for yourself. Maybe your own tanks need refilling, or your brain needs a break – we’re all just learning. Maybe this time he can just keep the stupid bird, and when he’s asleep, it will miraculously find its way to bird heaven.
If you have questions about this, or you’d like to learn more, there are many resources for brain-based parenting across the lifespan. Search the web, check out the list below, or email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson: The Whole Brain Child
This is a great book with lots of information on brain development strategies for raising calmer, happier, more empathetic kids.
Check out Vancouver-based child psychologist Gordon Neufeld, including his best selling book Hold on to your Kids
Try these five short and easy videos on brain-based parenting from Dr. Carrie Contey.